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Reflections from Eating in San Francisco

Last week, I flew out to San Francisco to visit an array of wildly impressive food artisans and trek through the sprawling Fancy Food Show, a veritable who’s-who of gourmet. After a week of tasting delicious finds, everyone at Lot18 has been asking, “So, what should I be eating?” While I can’t answer that question, I couldn’t help but notice a few delicious trends that you shouldn’t miss.

Caramels: It was hard not to notice an abundance of artisanal-caramel producers. Hand-cut caramels are the gourmet equivalent of a Milky Way bar at the grocery store checkout, and they never fail to get me.

Caramel is simple enough to make: cook sugar and add milk until the mixture emulsifies. With just two ingredients (three if you count a little water, four with a pinch of salt), new variations on an old favorite are tough. Right?

Wrong. Enter goat’s milk, as Fat Toad Farm out of Vermont and Happy Goat Farm out of San Francisco has, and caramels take on a lovely tangy complexity. Substitute cane sugar with organic brown rice syrup and coconut palm sugar as newly founded Barbary Brix is doing, and you have a healthy twist by lowering the glycemic index for a less of a sugar rush with all of the flavor. Or add a whisper of flavoring – Cassandra Chen at CCMade In California mixes luxe ingredients such as Madagascar vanilla, Darjeeling tea or Himalayan pink sea salt into her handcrafted creations.

Pickles: Wandering the aisles of the show, I noticed an explosion a modern pickle renaissance. Rick’s Picks (to-die-for “Windy City Wasabeans” – a wasabi-laced take on dilly beans) and McClure’s (who also makes, hands-down, the best Bloody Mary mix out there) are two pioneers that have been followed by a suite of others.

There’s Boat Street Pickles out of Seattle, whose pickled figs and pickled prunes make a luscious complement to a savory cheese plate. There’s also Unbound Pickling out of Portland, Happy Girl Kitchen out of San Francisco, Brooklyn Brine Co. in New York, and a slew of others whose array of pickled vegetables brings a touch of summer to any winter meal. The pickling movement has taken off.

And bacon continues its creep into just about every dish, including pickles. Unbound stocks a “Bacon Pickle” and a little company called Skillet Foods, whose food truck fed me lunch every week last summer in Seattle, has created a bacon jam – hardly a pickle, but with all the zing, zest and flavor of one.

Maple Syrup: The art of maple sugaring – tapping the Sugar Maple Tree that dots forests of the Northeastern US – dates back to the pre-Columbian era in America when American natives collected sap. Boiling it and bottling it on-farm in small batches is a growing trend – another I spotted at the show and in some of San Francisco’s impressive gourmet food stores. From Crown Maple, who we’ve featured on Lot18, to a new upstart called Mead & Mead’s, maple syrup is going artisanal. And it’s sometimes even finished in old bourbon casks for a flavor boost – an innovative twist that takes syrup to new levels.

California Olive Oil: I’ve been enjoying author Tom Mueller’s new book about fraud in the international olive trade, Extra Virginity, and have never been more inspired to buy olive oil directly from the farmer. His book was a hot topic at the show, and I found a host of olive farmers from California there, too. Many of them are family farmers, from Lucero Olive Oil to CaliVirgin to Owen’s Creek. They are all certified by the California Olive Oil Council, a tasting and approval panel that represents 90 percent of olive oil production in the state. With 30,000 acres of olives planted in the state – and with that number growing – I expect to see a lot more luscious Californian olive oil across the country, a blessing for salads, bread and other kitchen delicacies.

Follow me in my epicurean adventures on Twitter @KathrynAndersen

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